Ireland: The Uncomfortable Dead of Easter 1916

Photo: Easter April, 1922. Veterans of the 1916 Rising commemorate the Rising’s 6th anniversary by marching through the city. (Source:

Ireland’s Official Easter Rising commemoration sheds light on 100 years of inequality and failed expectations.

Dublin was in lockdown on March 27th as the Easter Sunday State Commemoration was held to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising. Surrounded by an extensive ring of steel, 5,000 state dignitaries and invited VIPs witnessed an extravagant ceremony in front of the historic site of the General Post Office–The GPO—ground zero of the insurrection one hundred years ago.

Beyond the closed-off main thoroughfares, thousands of onlookers –predominantly tourists– strained to catch a glimpse of the activities. If watching a small country’s drab army and fire brigade march by is your thing, you would have loved this. Spectator numbers fell dramatically short of the organizers expected 250,000.  

On a crowded side street, away the official events and television cameras, The Homeless Families of Ireland organization held a protest, raising a voice in particular for the 1,800 homeless children in the state. Invoking the Proclamation read by the rebels on the steps of the GPO in 1916, the homeless spokeswoman appealed for “all the children to be cherished equally.”

“On this day, we ask that we not only celebrate the rebels with flowers and speeches, but we commit ourselves to achieving their vision of creating a Republic of equals, by solving the homeless crisis which shames our nation today.”  

Reflecting the disparity within an increasingly two-tiered society, the two concurrent events were a stark reminder of the growing divide within the affluent Irish state between the haves and the have-nots.

Revolutions never turn out as planned

The Easter Rising of 1916 was a pivotal historical moment not just for Ireland, but for colonized peoples all over the globe. The British Empire was at that time the most formidable power in history, controlling one fifth of the world’s population. Edward Said saw the Irish rebellion as a “model of twentieth-century wars of liberation”.

The courageous–but doomed– act to rise up against the global power by a few hundred rebels set an example, and inspired others. Anti-colonial rebels from India to Africa took note. Before the Russian Revolution the following year, Lenin hailed the Irish insurrection as “a decisive blow against the British Empire.” Yet it appeared a more significant political event abroad than in Ireland.

The Rising occurred during a period of global unrest and revolutionary fervor. The 1916 generation were an enlightened mix of anti-imperialists, fenians, socialists, syndicalists, feminists, secularists and– of course– writers, poets and artists illumined by the rebellious zeitgeist of the age.

The insurrection created a revolutionary moment filled with great potential: suddenly a different Ireland was not only possible but being created in the here and now.

The tragedy of 1916 is that the revolutionary vision of the Proclamation–to change everything– was defeated within a few short years by counter-revolutionaries emerging from within the nationalists’ ranks.

In the wake of the War of Independence and the Civil War, conservative nationalists working closely with the Catholic Church created an authoritarian and patriarchal statelet that did not differ greatly from the status quo before the rising. Notions of social justice and equality were put on the backburner. The revolutionary generation of 1916 was shoved aside; women were told to return to the kitchen.

The dreams and ideals of 1916 were not realized, and the revolutionary impulse of the generation was lost. There are consequences when a great historical moment like the Easter Rising provides such a mediocre outcome. For Ireland, it meant 100 years of underachieving, where progressive change came slowly and only through the tireless efforts of grassroots initiatives.

The Uncomfortable Dead

The Irish state was always uncomfortable with the notion of celebrating the Easter Rising. The 75th anniversary in 1991 was a mute affair, only really commemorated by marginalized republicans. The centenary presented a dilemma – how to commemorate a revolution when it is still unfinished business, and faced with a sizeable portion of the population deeply unhappy with the current government – some militantly so.

The solution was to make it a huge media spectacle, stripped of political currency, re-branding 1916 as a marketable commodity for tourists to consume.

The first act was to change the date of the anniversary. Why commemorate the Rising on March 27th, almost a month before the actual anniversary of April 24th?

Journalist Gene Kerrigan commented, “Why not hold it on the anniversary? Well, due to the lunar and solar cycles and a formula initiated by the Council of Nicaea in 325AD, this year Easter is within 10 days of St Patrick’s Day. This created an accumulation of tourism potential, between March 17 and March 27, that the Government couldn’t resist…So, yet again fumbling in the greasy till, it’s brought the gig forward by a month, to boost the hotel and catering trade. We’re celebrating the 99 years and 11 months anniversary of the Rising.”

With a reputed €45 million budget, the state has gone into overdrive, saturating the country with everything 1916. 1,800 or so commemorative events were scheduled – free talks, exhibitions, debates, film, performances and dramatizations; every form of media is swamped with anniversary content. Dublin is awash with centenary fervor, from theatrical reenactments in the streets to buses converted to Easter Rising tours. Buildings are draped with enormous banners representing different figures of the era, including notorious anti-insurgent political leader John Redmond, who described the Rising as a “wicked and insane” event.

While the celebrations are undoubtedly popular, the overflow of media coverage serves another purpose. With its multitude of interpretations coming from every historical, cultural, and political perspective, radical voices are marginalized, and the ideology of the Rising is dispersed through the cacophony of voices. And in the process, the meaning of the Rising is recuperated by the state.

Many are boycotting the official commemorations and holding a Citizens’ Centenary Commemoration on April 24th, the actual date of the centenary.

Another Easter Rising

Yeats’ mesmerizing words have long been employed in the service of official Ireland, and his Easter 1916 poem has been rolled out ubiquitously this month – All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.

But change has come too slowly since 1916 and the aspirations of the 1916 generation remain so; most of all for the sizable portion of the population that is excluded from the wealth of the nation: The homeless, the marginalized, those forced to emigrate, the 138,000 children living in poverty.

On a side street in Dublin, the homeless are protesting the rising shame of Ireland’s growing inequality. These are the excluded, those from below. Official Ireland has no place for them.

For them, another of Yeats’ famous lines serves better – perhaps it is time once more to “hurl the little streets upon the great”.

Ramor Ryan is author of Zapatista Spring (AK Press 2011) and Clandestines: The Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile (AK Press 2006).